Note: This review is not spoiler-free!
June Hayward wants what Athena Liu has: a spectacular, high-flying career as an author. Despite both women coming out of Yale and releasing their debuts at about the same time, June is bitterly aware of her relative obscurity. Athena dies in a sudden accident, leaving behind her manuscript of her next novel about Chinese workers who were exploited and maltreated during the British war effort in World War One. Even in its draft form, unseen by anybody else, it is a brilliant work. June takes Athena’s manuscript and reworks some of it before presenting it as her own, published under the name “Juniper Song.” Song is a legal middle name provided by her whimsical mother. If it conveniently also suggests a Chinese background that June doesn’t have, so be it. Athena’s wild level of success is suddenly in June’s hands. As Yellowface unfolds, June proves the extent to which she is willing to lie, threaten, and bully her way into holding onto that success.
June is, unfortunately, a delightful protagonist in the sheer audacity of her excuses and self-justification. The initial premise of Yellowface gave me the impression that most of the plot circles around the fallout of June’s brazen theft of Athena’s novel and the way she benefits from presenting herself as racially ambiguous, which was already condemnable enough. June talks about how she is the reason Athena’s work saw the light of day at all and that her edits improved the book and made it June’s too.
Perhaps an incredibly generous reader could stretch the benefit of the doubt to accept June’s description of a real need to rewrite parts of the novel, and that Athena’s untimely death inspired genuine passion in June to see the novel completed. (This still does require ignoring how June claims all credit for the book and only starts describing her relationship with Athena as a deep-rooted friendship after Athena’s death). However, June reveals about two-thirds of the way through Yellowface that the manuscript is not all she took – she also has some of Athena’s notes. June writes her next novella based on a passage from those papers, again claiming it to be original work, and is subsequently called out by other writers who have evidence of Athena workshopping that passage prior to her death. Every time June has the chance to admit what she has done and to apologize, she squanders it. Her desire for acclaim goes far beyond relatability and well into the territory of bitingly entertaining.
Much of June’s plot is affected by activity on the Internet, including Twitter discourse and blog posts about the accusations of plagiarism and profiting off of yellowface. One of Kuang’s strengths is convincingly keeping readers in these spaces, without the exhaustion that comes with endlessly scrolling through increasingly controversial comment threads. Pop culture references come and go with ease, and it takes more skill than expected to reference Tumblr posts in a character’s internal monologue without being cringe-inducing. Little worldbuilding is needed beyond some of the ins and outs of the publishing industry, and other than the unshakeable ghost of Athena, June keeps very few characters close to her. Her first-person delivery thus keeps the narrative straightforward and single-minded.
Athena Liu, dead within the first twenty pages of the novel, is mostly presented through June’s recollections of her. Kuang takes the opportunity to interrogate a different type of theft in creative writing. June calls Athena a “vampire” and a “magpie” because of her skill for extracting stories out of people and using their words in her work, including June’s own experience with sexual assault as an undergraduate student. Athena’s success and practices raise important questions about how writers from the same or closely related backgrounds to their subjects can still be exploitative of suffering when the writers themselves never had the same experiences. The problem with June, however, is that she thinks that this genuinely difficult question validates her racially ambiguous self-presentation in order to promote the novel that she stole from Athena.
And so June steamrollers her way through controversy and doggedly clings to her lies. The reminders of Athena pile up, as June thinks she sees her in crowds and is increasingly distressed over social media posts claiming to be from her, nearly convinced that she never died at all. Where the novel falters, however, is the final confrontation between June and Candice Lee. June is lured with the sound of Athena speaking and she confesses at last, only to find out that she is actually being recorded by Candice, a former employee at June’s publishing house.
After being ousted from her position for pressuring June about a sensitivity reader and accusing her of cultural appropriation, Candice had mostly disappeared from the novel until this climax, where she is revealed to have been seeking revenge on June and now has the means to expose her. The combination of Candice’s monologue about her motivations and the subsequent physical fight for Candice’s cameras that lands June in the hospital feels too cartoonish to be effective in this novel’s type of satire. The very meta conclusion to the novel, where June lays out a plan to retake control of the whole narrative after Candice goes public with the recordings, is a bit of a recovery but still not quite satisfying.
Through Yellowface, R. F. Kuang presents a sharp examination of diverse representation and tokenism in the contemporary literary world. Kuang puts the ugly dynamics of the publishing industry into plain view, and June unabashedly takes advantage of a dead woman of colour’s work in order to build her own success. However, through Kuang’s clear prose and June’s enthralling voice comes an obvious love for storytelling and the art of writing, despite the barriers and the noise.
Acta Victoriana would like to extend thanks to the publisher, HarperCollins, for the review copy.